The Fight of Their Lives, Chapter 2: Pain and Glory

While Shavar works to shed ring rust, a prodigal boxer returns to Johnson’s gym.

Dec. 16, 2007

A Boxer’s Pain and Glory

Shavar Henry’s rope is a blur as he skips, its silver handles flashing with each flourish.

Then he trips.

And trips again.

Then his iPod falls off his waistband and clatters across the floor.

When Shavar’s on, the rope’s an extension of his body and he puts on shows as engrossing as any boxing match. But today he’s off. Way off.

The provincial championships, a requirement for fighters who, like Shavar, plan to qualify for the 2008 Olympics, are 10 weeks away. But Shavar, who hopes to reclaim a provincial title despite taking a year off with an injured hand, hasn’t trained since fighting an exhibition on Canada Day. He took a break from Sheridan College to concentrate on boxing, but these days work – he makes $20 an hour at a Mississauga box factory – keeps him too busy and tired to train. Today’s his first day back, and it shows.

While Shavar skips, his coach, former Olympic bronze medallist Chris Johnson, struts into the place like he owns it. Not quite, but after two tenuous months his boxing club, Chris Johnson’s Fighting Alliance, has a home.

The club was evicted from a central Mississauga community centre in late May, with Johnson’s top pro fighter, Steve Molitor, training for a world title defence. The move to a nearby fitness club was supposed to last six weeks, but Molitor’s presence boosted business, so they hired Johnson.

He was skeptical at first. Johnson sees himself as a builder of champions, the latest in a long line of great trainers like Angelo Dundee, who coached Muhammad Ali, and Emmanuel Steward, who ran the legendary Kronk Gym in Detroit. Great trainers train great fighters; they don’t teach boxercise.

And Johnson feels he’s on his way to the top. Just two years after starting a gym, he has a world champion in his stable and a seven-year plan to produce a fleet of top-notch pros. Eventually he’ll turn his club into the Canadian Kronk.

Right now, though, he’s broke.

Management convinced him that teaching a few classes isn’t selling out – it’s just business – and Johnson quickly realized he was a natural salesman. It’s easy when you believe in your product and Johnson, a cash-strapped ex-fighter who nearly died in the ring, somehow still believes in boxing. He sold $15,000 worth of training sessions his first week and by August was running the club’s boxing program.

After 15 years of sporadic paydays, boxing is finally providing steady income and, as he sits at his desk, Johnson looks stress-free and well-rested for the first time in months.

His mood sours when he sees Shavar.

Two years ago, Shavar looked like a lock for the 2008 Olympic team. Now, after breaking his hand in a street fight last year, people speak about the 21-year-old in the past tense – if they discuss him at all. Johnson’s glad Shavar’s back in the gym, but miffed about losing six weeks of training.

“I can’t even stand to look at you,” he says as Shavar stands next to the desk, wrapping his hands. “You were supposed to win nationals this year.”

Shavar smiles and keeps wrapping his hands.

“Nationals didn’t come up yet,” he says.

“But you’re whining to me about one hand.”

Shavar sighs and his smile fades.

“I said what I said,” he says. “But if I didn’t want to be here I wouldn’t be here.”

When Chris insults Shavar, it’s nothing personal. It’s motivation. Shavar has surplus confidence but sometimes Chris wonders if he’s too soft for boxing. What else would you call a guy who once posed shirtless in the Toronto Sun? Who works out listening to slow jams by Dru Hill and Ginuwine? Sure, he’s got tattoos, but the biggest one is a portrait of his grandmother.

Normally it wouldn’t be a problem, but Chris thinks Shavar’s too nice in the ring, afraid to finish off opponents. Not advisable when fights – and dreams – can end with one lucky punch. So Chris needles Shavar, hoping he can cultivate a mean streak.

Shavar sees Johnson’s point, but disagrees. As a teenager he trained with former Olympians Egerton Marcus and Troy Ross, a pair of hard-hitting cousins known to treat routine sparring sessions like world title bouts. You didn’t survive those gym wars unless you could take and give. Chris wants to tease the toughness out of Shavar, but the cousins already beat it into him. For Shavar, the problem has never been his heart.

It’s his hand.


At the gym two weeks later, Shavar removes his tank top to reveal the muscles forming beneath a melting layer of baby fat. He’s showing off two new tattoos. One, on the right side of his rib cage, reads “PAIN AND GLORY.” The other, inked into his right bicep, says “Believe.”

In a few days he’ll spar with Greg Kielsa, an undefeated pro heavyweight who outweighs him by nearly 30 pounds. Shavar will confuse him with movement and scarcely take a punch during the four-round session.

Then Shavar throws a right uppercut and his first two knuckles, the ones he shattered in a street fight last year and haven’t fully healed after two surgeries, hit Kielsa’s elbow. His entire arm goes numb. Sparring ends right there. Shavar’s hand swells and throbs.

But that fight’s a few days away and today Shavar and his new tattoos are the sideshow. The main attraction’s in the ring right now, all long limbs and flashing fists, dismantling one sparring partner after another. Other boxers stop training to watch him.

Steve Rolls showed up here only three days ago, but already the 23-year-old welterweight is proving he’s someone to watch.

He and Johnson have been here before. Three years ago, when Johnson was coaching with Marcus and Ross, Rolls, as quiet as Shavar is confident, materialized at the gym. He quickly turned heads with his speed and skill and, after a few workouts, Johnson knew he was a rare but frustrating talent.

Born in Hamilton and adopted by a Chatham family, Rolls was both confident and insecure; dedicated but different. He had bet his life on boxing, spending 2003 training in Ohio, but when Johnson worked him hard, Rolls rebelled.

Figuring Rolls needed a father figure, Johnson offered stern discipline. Rolls, he says, wanted coddling, so he joined another gym.

Last year, he won a provincial title in the 152-pound weight class and boxing people wondered if Canada finally had a welterweight who could challenge three-time national champ Adam Trupish. Then Rolls lost his first-round bout at the national championships.

Now, with Olympic qualifying fast approaching, Rolls has returned to the coach he thinks can take him the distance, but to reach Beijing he’ll have to unseat Trupish.

And he’s got an even tougher battle to fight.

As Johnson watches, Rolls counts the ways to land a left jab. First he pops his sparring partner. Then he pokes him. Then he slides to his left and spears him. Finally, he flicks him.

But Johnson knows there’s a good chance the confident, calculating fighter in the ring right now won’t show up when it counts. Rolls blows minds in sparring but sometimes in competition he simply blows it, seized by stage fright.

Johnson thinks Rolls has the talent to top Trupish, head to the Olympics and turn pro, but first Rolls will need to subdue his self-doubt.

At a training camp next month, Rolls will have the chance to confront his fears.

Or succumb to them.

Next: At a national team training camp Steve Rolls battles Canada’s best boxers, and his own fears.

Copyright 2007 Toronto Star

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